Who’s sitting in Starbucks?

By | October 4, 2001

A recent news item in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about a one-of-a-kind coffee house called "Coffee Messiah" and the struggles of its 26 year old proprietor Howard Bialik against coffee giant Starbucks got me thinking about just exactly why people respond so strongly—one way or another—to Starbucks. A few months after Starbucks opened an outlet a few doors away from Coffee Messiah in downtown Seattle, for instance, Bialik got himself arrested for (allegedly) stickering his competitor’s front window, presumably with witty "support-local-industry" literature. As part of his defense, he claimed that he and his little coffee house had themselves been subjected to harassment, and he wasn’t talking about the less-than-subtle corporate franchise trick of opening an outlet across the street and dumping product in the market below cost until local competitors run out of resources and go belly up. Bialik cited, as illustration of the sort of harassment he’d suffered, a Seattle police request that one of his employees erase a sidewalk chalkboard because the message on it read "Friends don’t let friends buy corporate coffee." This controversy, remember, came in the wake of the antiglobalist riots in that city. The Seattle police may have been proactively responding—and overreacting—to what they’d identified as a new type of hate-literature.

Now normally, I tend to go along with anti-corporate literature even when it is of the dubious sort, simply because the corporate sector has such a vast advantage when it comes to putting its message across. In addition, Bialik, I suspect, was mostly entertaining himself and his customers by cashing in on the growing anti-corporate sentiments that are currently invading the Zeitgeist, and by all accounts was being decently witty about it. But aside from its move-in-next-door-and-squash-the-competition expansion policies (which are hardly innovative) I’d suggest that if this were a rational universe Starbucks would come fairly far down the list of nasty and heartless corporations sensible people ought to be working up a righteous lather over. It is, after all, practically the only consumer corporation on the planet that isn’t openly hostile to having people park on its turf and do a little free-form thinking. It is therefore curious that so startling a number of people loathe Starbucks. It has me thinking not only about why this is so, but also about what sort of people don’t loathe it.

A friend of mine uses the term "CoBo"—or "corporate bohemian" to describe the typically youngish customer he sees sitting in the padded armchairs at the College and Euclid Avenue Starbucks outlet in downtown Toronto. The idea of corporate bohemians may seem like an oxymoron, but it is no more strange than the notion that there can be military intelligence, educational television or the seacoast of Bohemia, the last of which was to William Shakespeare’s patrons in the early 17th Century what Starbucks seems to have become to a class of coffee-drinkers in the early 21st.

My friend’s CoBos—they can be male or female—are usually well dressed, and more often than not, they’re fiddling with cell phones, palm pilots or laptop computers, updating their schedules while they sip the coffee products Starbucks makes with its slightly over-roasted sun-grown beans. Aside from their preference for the infohighway over their human brethren, what marks a CoBo, he says, is the peculiar brand of anxiety he detects bubbling a nanometre inside their fashionable exterior surfaces, a condition he believes is generated by their wish to give the impression that they’re there to save time rather than waste it, taking a working break rather than a break from work. Isn’t such Important Work, after all, a Key Part of Today’s Corporate Efficiency, even when it looks like ordinary dithering?

I’ve detected another group in that same Starbucks outlet that interests me as much as the CoBos, to whom I’m cheerfully prepared to offer recognition as a distinct society within my private 21st Century urb. This other one comprises a different layer of Starbuck’s patrons, more numerous than the CoBos, more dynamic—and therefore more elusive to isolate with a quick description. Most of them aren’t frantic enough about their time to use palm pilots and they’re not well-heeled enough to own laptops; if they are, they’re constantly checking out the other laptops in the place to see where they sit in the technological prestige heirarchy, something a true CoBo would never stoop to. Yet aside from this income-engendered tic, they’re generally not quite self-involved enough to be looking around to see if their fellow-patrons are suitably impressed with their leisure-time productivity. What distinguishes this group, actually, is how relaxed and comfortable they are. To them, Starbucks is home base; a sanctuary; a soft, warm place in a cold, hard universe. The women are comfortable enough that they often slip off their shoes and tuck their toes beneath them in the padded armchairs. The men as similarly at ease; commonly slouched and often sleepy, only half-there to whatever magazines and books they’re reading or street-side drama they’re parsing. Some of the males remove their running shoes or sandals, too, although the practice is evidently frowned on by management, for obvious reasons.

My instinct is that many of them are university students. A few might be downmarket or out-of-uniform CoBos, but they’re more likely minimum wage corporate poseurs and wannabees. Or, beginners. What all hold in common is that they’ve grown up with consumer franchises, and have arrived at a state of mind in which the virtual environments set up by the corporations—McDonalds, Starbucks, Tim Hortons—are integral to their private and social identities, and provide the same sort of indentity frames that clans, tribes, ethnicities and gangs have to previous generations, and for the same sorts of reasons. And as in the past, some of those reasons are good and nurturing, while others are darker and hold the seeds to social violence even though it’s hard to imagine wars between patrons of Tim Horton’s and Starbucks unless it’s a Saturday night in Regina and everyone involved is very drunk and even more bored.

I don’t know whether my friend coined the "Cobo" acronym or if he heard it from someone else. Doesn’t matter. I’d like to posit a second one: FraBos, or franchise bohemians. I can’t tie their emergence to Starbuck’s newly-relaxed fiscal formula for bum warming, and I’m not going to speculate that the corporation must surely have installed electrical circuits in those plush chairs that will deliver a "move on" message by means of subtle electric shocks to FraBos who set off the timers by sitting too long and cutting into the corporation’s profits. The important phenomena is that FraBos believe Starbucks wants them there, and that they’d rather be in the arms of a corporation than elsewhere—Kalendar, for instance, which is right next door to the College and Euclid Starbucks, has a full food menu that’s better than good, and is frequently populated by minor film and television celebrities.

Frabos are no trivial matter, because they, along with the CoBos, might well be our cultural future. FraBos and CoBos aren’t merely suckers who’ve been excessively manipulated by corporate advertising. There’s an argument that suggests that they’re adaptive to change than the rest of us, like human beings are supposed to be. Like cult members and soldiers, they’ve learned to relate, in their instinctive and subconscious locational cognitions, to virtual environments instead of particular and specific elements of whichever city they live in. They might even be the Avant Garde, and I’m not smirking when I say this.

For sure, their existence is a tribute to the power of post-modern marketing, like the blank-faced visitors to Disney’s virtual environments. But at least the virtual environments that are comforting these CoBos and FraBos are among the few corporate environments anywhere that tolerates loitering and thought. Better Starbucks, caffeine and the magazine of your choice than the brain-disabling entertainments of Walt Disney and his World.

1251 w. October 4th


  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com. He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

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